Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2690

by Andrew Boyd

Today, to be a pharaoh. The University of Houstonís College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for over three thousand years. The rule of the pharaohs came to an end in 30 B.C.E. with conquest by the Romans and the death of Cleopatra. In their time the pharaohs wielded immense power — the construction of the great pyramids standing forth as a prime example. But for all their power, they still couldnít get a cup of ice on a hot day.

picture of a glass of ice water

Itís astonishing to think of how engineering has improved our lives. And not just for the well-to-do. Today we take ice for granted. Itís delivered to us in a glass of water whenever we sit down at a restaurant. At home, we find it in the freezer. The pharaohs never had such luxury.

Nor did they have microwave ovens — devices that heat frozen meals in a matter of minutes. The pharaohs had light and heat — fireís been around for a long time. But they couldnít switch on a convenient table lamp at a cost of only a few cents a day. And air conditioning only got as far as slaves waving fans.

The pharaohs had a well developed transportation system, but they didnít have gas powered engines. It wasnít possible to throw the kids in the car for a quick weekend getaway at the Red Sea. A visit to Athens would have required a dangerous boat trip taking many days, not a one hour plane flight. Modern cruise ships werenít an option.

picture of a cruise ship

Pharaohs couldnít wander the aisles of grocery stores filled with shelf after shelf of fruit juice, dairy products, and canned goods. They couldnít pick up New Zealand apples, Swiss chocolate, or Wisconsin cheddar — all made possible for us by a vast, international infrastructure enabled by engineering.

And, of course, communication wasnít quite as easy for the pharaohs as it is for us today. The Egyptians had papyrus and a written language from very early on, so they didnít have to rely on the spoken word alone. But they didnít have ballpoint pens, radio, television, telephones, email, or the World Wide Web. The pharaohs couldnít shop online for sneakers or shavers or synthetic thermal underwear — all delivered the next day for a little extra. Nor could they entertain themselves with stereos, iPods, DVDs, video games, or Friday night at the movies.

With so many engineering marvels surrounding us, itís easy to forget how fortunate we are. Technology alone canít bring happiness, but itís unquestionably allowed us to improve the human condition. The next time you turn on a light or sip your morning coffee or drive to work, ask yourself: would you rather be a pharaoh, or who you are today?

Lexus interior

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

Ancient Egypt. From the Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egypt. Accessed February 14, 2011.

The picture of the car interior is taken from a Web site of the Lexus Corporation. All other pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.